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What Republicans Need to Understand About the Iraq War

Jeremy Lott acknowledges the political obstacles, but tells Republican politicians that they should admit that the Iraq war was a mistake:

They ought to take the chance and tell the truth. It would help restore the party’s credibility with the broad mass of independent voters and with those Democrats sick of the George W. Bush-Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton foreign policy framework. It would also force rank-and-file party regulars to either cease their misguided cheerleading or bury their own heads ever deeper in the sand.

On that score, count me an optimist. My sense is, truth would be a welcome relief in this debate. Republicans as a whole would rather not be weighed down, over a decade later, by a botched and unpopular war.

Naturally, I agree with Lott on what Republican politicians should do, and no one would be more pleased if would-be presidential nominees took this advice than I would be. In theory, it should be relatively easy for leading Republicans elected since 2008 to disavow the Iraq war and acknowledge what the majority already takes as a given. Virtually none of the politicians mentioned as 2016 candidates in the GOP were even in national office during the Bush years, and except for Santorum none of them has any particular reason to continue defending the war. Admitting that the Iraq war to be a mistake would be a healthy and sensible break from the Bush years, and it would demonstrate that there was some learning from Bush’s mistakes taking place inside the GOP. It would not be enough by itself to build up the party’s reputation for competence or wisdom in foreign policy, but it would be a much-needed and long-delayed start.

There are some obstacles to what Lott proposes. Chief among them is the difficulty that many hawks in the party still truly don’t accept that the Iraq war was a mistake. Despite the fact that by virtually any measurable standard the Iraq war was a senseless waste of lives and resources, they don’t consider this to be the truth, so they won’t greet it with relief. At best, many hawks will agree that the there were flaws in the execution, but they remain convinced that the original idea was sound. That wouldn’t matter quite so much if the people likely to be serving in the next Republican administration hadn’t mostly been long-time supporters of the Iraq war. However, because most of them are it will make it harder to think that admitting the war to be a mistake has much meaning for how the next administration will govern.

After all, the issue is not just whether the next Republican nominee can mouth the right words and reassure some skeptical voters, but whether the next Republican president understands why the Iraq war was a mistake and knows how to avoid making similar foreign policy errors. If Republican candidates accept that invading Iraq was a mistake, but still think launching an attack on Iran is acceptable or even preferable, that suggests they haven’t really learned anything. In addition to admitting that the war was a mistake, Republicans need to understand why it was and they need to be able to articulate why preventive war in general is neither wise nor prudent.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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